Liberal Education and Coffee

Korea famously boasts an excellent educational system, which sends over 80 percent of its high school students to college. But as Korean economy faces a persistent problem of youth unemployment, commentators are observing that Koreans are being over-educated. Essentially, the idea is that Korea has youth unemployment because it has too many college graduates. The following BBC article nicely captures that sentiment:
South Korea's education system is held up as a model around the world. Some 80% of its high-school students now go on to further education. But according to South Korea's president, that academic success is creating its own "social problem" - a youth unemployment rate of 6.7% in October, more than twice the national average, even as parts of the labour market are hungry for workers.

"Because there are so many people graduating from university at the moment, and looking only for high-end jobs, there's a mismatch between the job-hunters, and the positions available," explains Kim Hwan Sik, director of vocational training at the Education Ministry.
South Korea's Wasted Youth [BBC]

(Aside:  In a typical BBC fashion, it messed up the name of Korean grandmother interviewed in the article by referring to her as Ms. Eun Ju-sung. In all likelihood the lady's name would be Ms. Ju Sung-Eun, and in no event should she be referred to as Ms. Ju-sung. Readers of this blog would know that BBC is prone to egregious errors when it comes to covering Korea.)

The Korean thinks the idea that Korea has "too many college graduates" is incorrect, for a number of reasons. To give a short (and incomplete) summary of the reasons:
  1. The idea ignores the fact that Korea currently has the lowest birthrate in the world, which means Korea will soon face a severe shortage of people generally, and young people in particular. Whatever youth unemployment there exists currently is a temporary problem.

  2. Research on this topic shows that it is not the college degree that hinders employment, but differences in other skills. In other words, the young unemployed population is unemployed not because their standards are too high, but because they are not desirable candidates for the employers.

  3. The idea is based on the erroneous premise that as long as we deny people from attending college, we can sufficiently crush their aspirations enough for them to accept menial jobs.
In this post, however, the Korean exclusively wants to discuss the reason he considers the most important, that is:  4. Liberal education has value that reaches far beyond employment, such that it enriches the society even if the educated people are unemployed.

To be sure, the benefits of liberal education is not obvious -- which is partially why Korean president Lee Myeong-Bak has said: "A soccer player does not need a diploma from Seoul National University; he only needs to kick the ball well," as he joined the chorus of observation that Koreans are getting over-educated. But in some rare instances, one can get a clear and unobstructed glimpse of the benefits of liberal education manifested in a society. One of those rare instances involve coffee in Korea.

(More after the jump)

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Let us back up for a bit and get some terminologies and history straight. First, about the term "liberal education." There may be many definitions of the term, but as good as any is the definition offered by the Association of American Colleges and Universities:  "philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills." Under this definition, liberal education prefers to produce generalists rather than specialists. Instead of focusing on a specific area, liberal education asks the students to be broadly knowledgeable about various topics and cultivate the life skills that can be used in any situation.

Korea's educational system, including primary (K-6th grade), secondary (7th-12th grade) and tertiary (college and beyond) education, is strongly premised on the philosophy of liberal education. Korea's colleges are set up similarly as American colleges, which generally emphasize liberal education. More importantly, Korea's middle and high schools demand the students to be proficient in a number of subjects at the same time -- as many as 15 subjects in high school which includes Korean, English, math, science, social studies, literature, ethics, music, fine arts, etc. Students have relatively few choices for electives. Critics of Korean educational system argue (mistakenly, in the Korean's estimation,) that this system is wasteful for students, whose energy would be better served by specializing in a number of electives.

Second, about coffee in Korea. As the Korean explained previously, Korean people's love for coffee runs deep. Although coffee obviously is a recent introduction to Korea, virtually every Korean at every level of society -- rich, poor, urban, rural, old, young -- loves drinking coffee. Korea's love for coffee, however, did not translate to a particularly high quality of coffee. For a long time, and for the most part, the only coffee available in Korea was the Tasters' Choice instant coffee mix, intermixed with a healthy dose of coffee creamer and sugar. Even as recently as five years ago, the only coffee that was halfway decent in Korea was from a handful of Starbucks outlets, located primarily in Seoul.

Now, here is the main point:  in the last five years, the quality of coffee in Korea improved astronomically. To be sure, Tasters' Choice instant coffee mix remains popular among Koreans, particularly in the older generation. (It is the only coffee that the Korean Father drinks, for example.) But gone are the days when the choices for a decent coffee in Seoul were between Starbucks and Starbucks. (Emphasis on the word "decent" here -- Starbucks in Korea is just as good as Starbucks in America, so you can guess the quality of the best coffee Korea had to offer as recently as five years ago.)

There are more than a dozen "gourmet coffee" chains in Korea, and the average quality of coffee available from those coffee shops is incomparably better than the quality of the average coffee available just five years ago. When one seeks out the best coffee shops of Seoul, their coffee compares favorably to any coffee that the Korean has ever had around the world. (New York Times noticed, apparently.) The Korean can say without any hesitation that five years ago, Seoul had worse coffee than Washington D.C. Now? Seoul is blowing D.C. out of the coffee mug.

But how did this happen? Korea's coffee tradition is extremely short. And just five years ago, excellent coffee in Korea was completely unavailable. Korea is a country marked by fast changes, but even the Korean himself did not expect this. How does a country go from shitty coffee to excellent coffee in just five years?

The big part of the answer is Korea's liberal education. This may seem unlikely -- what does educational system have to do with coffee quality? But think about what is required for a general increase in quality of coffee over the whole society. It is not enough to have a small cohort of specialists. Even if Korea had a small number of world-class coffee roasters, those roasters won't be able to make a living if they could not sell their coffee. The general public needs to have the ability to make fine distinctions, separate good from the bad, and support the work of the specialists by paying for their product.

Here is where the value of liberal education shines. Few Koreans ever received a detailed, professional education in coffee. However, they received an education in a number of different subjects, such that they grow to have a certain body of meta-skills that connects the different knowledge gained from all the different subjects. If the population of a given country has a stronger set of such meta-skills, that country ends up operating at a higher level.

The application of chain of events is extremely subtle, and rarely can one isolate the contribution of the meta-skill in any given social enhancement. Korea's improvement in coffee quality, however, provides as clear a picture as one could get. One of the meta-skills acquired through liberal education is an appreciation of fine differences, gained through art, music and literature. Give better coffee to a population that knows how to make small distinctions, and what happens? Coffee quality improves dramatically.

Of course, even in this best case scenario that shows the benefits of liberal education, the causal mechanism is not neat. There are certainly other intervening factors. If Koreans had not loved coffee (however crappy that coffee was) for the last few decades, it is doubtful that they were able to notice and go for improved coffee, even if they had the best liberal education possible. (This is probably why, for example, pasta in Korea is still not that great, although the quality of pasta in Korea also has been improving significantly in recent years.) Certainly some part of the trend is fueled by hipster poseurism, with a number of people going along with the trend without truly understanding the coffee quality in an effort to look cool. But regardless of these caveats (and there may be more,) the main point holds:  there is no way the quality of coffee over an entire country could improve so dramatically in just five years, unless you have a liberally educated population capable of making fine distinctions.

In fact, how Korea came to have good coffee is a scale model of how Korea came to be a first-world country at an unprecedented speed. The improvement of coffee quality in Korea is merely the improvement of Korean society, writ small. One thing must always remember this about Korea:  no country in the history of mankind has gone from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest in just 60 years, while going from a dictatorship to a democracy to boot. And a major reason why Koreans could have pulled off such a miracle is because Koreans consistently employed a version of liberal education -- a Confucianism-based educational philosophy that is designed to build a whole person, rather than injecting specialized knowledge as if adding options to a car.

(Aside:  Here is a Washington Post article that makes the same point, stated slightly differently.)

This point is worth reiterating:  a society with liberally educated people operates at a higher level. Of course specialized knowledge is necessary, especially in today's world dominated by technology. Yet equally necessary are liberally educated people who have a strong set of meta-skills applicable to all fields of knowledge. Those educated people appreciate the specialists' works and support the specialists by consuming such works. They provide feedback in a way that helps the specialists do better in their fields. They provide a political and social structure -- democracy, free enterprise and the like -- in which the specialists can truly shine.

Most importantly, liberally educated people do better in a rapidly changing world. Even if the world may appear to be changing into a completely different place, the relevant meta-skills remain the same as long as it is humans who are driving the change. The specialized skill du jour may change with time, but the meta-skills that are required to quickly pick up the new specialized skill and/or understand the product of the specialized skill do not change. The stronger the population's meta-skills, the faster the population is able to adopt to the rapidly changing world.

Koreans had no historical experience with coffee, but now have good-to-excellent coffee. Koreans had no historical experience with democracy, but now have the most robust democracy in Asia. Koreans had no historical experience with modern shipbuilding, steel production or consumer electronics, but now are world leaders in those industries. Liberal education in Korea made such rapid adaptation and advancement possible.

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